Over time I have come to believe that the movie industry in France is one of the nation’s richest cultural legacies. Since I moved away from Europe many years ago, viewing a French movie has the unfailing power to immerse me back into a culture I am deeply attached to and love. The French movie usually contains a rich and imaginative dialogue, leaving my attention fully engaged up to the very end – be it a drama or comedy. Also, what is unique to French cinematography is that it speaks poetically and the images capture the climate of the story in a very skillful and subtle way. I think it is partly because the pace of the French movie is generally slower than the American productions.
I find that in French films the interactions between the characters are realistic, richly layered, and multifaceted. More often than not, the characters are depicted as ambivalent in nature, leaving the audience actively involved, empathetic and contemplative. In most French movies, usual cliches and predictable dialogues are minimal or even absent. Banal sentimentality is replaced by a higher order of feelings and reflection. I find that this is done by bringing out universal, human tendencies rather than by focusing on whether a character’s decision was good or bad. I most enjoy the way a French movie leads its audience to draw its own moral conclusion on any given issue, rather than feeding it a ready-made, preconceived, and predictable opinion already scripted in the plot. The French film industry offers a delightful variety of movies, rarely leaving you disappointed, and often filled with surprises – regardless of its genre.
The following films are a few that I particularly enjoyed and that we own at this library.
If you haven’t already seen Jean De Florette and Manon Des Sources (Manon of the Springs), do not miss it. To me, this production ranks among the classic French films. The author of the novel, Marcel Pagnol, has written many classics in French literature, many of which I had to read as a child growing up in a French-speaking country. The two films cover the span of two generations, and offer loads of intricately woven mysteries and secrets that keep you mesmerized until the end. The plot is dark at times, yet set in the most beautiful and peaceful of settings of Provence. It is a saga of determination, love and loyalty – as well as deceit, and retribution. The movie splendidly evokes the provincial atmosphere of a small southern French town. I particularly enjoy the scene of the town meeting. Everyone is fired up and boisterously complaining about a water problem they are facing – the interactions and abiance are priceless. The splendid acting of Daniel Auteuil, Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu make this movie a “tour-de-force.”
Je l’Aimais (also featuring Daniel Auteuil) is a movie which addresses conflicts over love and infidelity, beyond facile moral judgments. Although a banal topic – and oftren a tedious one – the movie invites us to delve deeper than our own predictable moral judgments. The story is of a family man who falls in love with a younger woman with whom he has a passionate affair for years. Every character in the story is essentially good and decent, but appears to be dominated by his or her needs and emotions, to the point of losing the very anchor of his/her character, and therefore, inner peace. Each character has become pray to his/her fears, desires and ambivalences. The subject of infidelity is treated with openness and honesty in the movie. There is no moral judgment in its delivery, letting the audience draw its own conclusions on the matter according to one’s own set of values – which are also cleverly brought up for re-evaluation. While I was skeptical about the topic at first, the movie left me with a “round” and richer perspective. I very much recommend it.
If you like a thriller with a Parisian flair, you will enjoy RAPT and 36 Quai des Orfevres, and The Page Turner. In RAPT, you will be captured by the intensity of a thriller, but once again, without the predictable character redemption at the end. Rather, the story ends on a sober note where the main character is taken down by his own character flaws.
Another study in character that I very much enjoyed, was L’Elegance du Herisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog). The movie was adapted from the very popular book written by Muriel Barbery. What struck me most in this movie, was the eloquence and intelligence of the dialogue – a feast for the ears. Often, the exchanges are literary, pregnant with subtle, symbolic meaning, though never losing the audience in fluffy abstractions. The story speaks of ordinary lives who come together despite their morbidly cynical and love-less lives. Each character finds in the other the possibility of love, a richness that gradually breathes life back into them. The setting is in an apartment building in Paris, inhabited only by wealthy families. The two principal characters are a brilliant, young girl with dark, suicidal thoughts and a jaded, cynical janitor of the building. Both characters discover love in their own way, each one finding it deep, below their skin. Lovely, at times poingnant and dark, and other times humorous – the movie is entertaining throughout. I found the actors to be sensational, namely Josiane Balasko (the janitor). Don’t miss it, it is a heartwarming movie.
La Vie En Rose is another “must-see” picture. It is the story of French singer Edith Piaf whose brilliant career soared in the 40s and 50s. While her life was dramatic and often filled with tragedy, the movie is remarkable. It does not romanticize the star, nor does it depict her character in any artificial and predictable way. Piaf is portrayed as she was, emotionally scarred by the rough circumstances of her past. Piaf was raised on the streets, her parents being destitute and alcoholics. She spent childhood years in a brothel, raised by prostitutes who cared for her as best they could. Piaf became a needy, emotional, vulnerable, scruffy and often difficult adult. She drank too much, succumbed to vulgarity and was involved in many scandals. In the movie, she is not made to be liked or disliked, but rather, she is depicted as a needy and simple human being. At every moment throughout the film, I expected her to transform into a softer, redeemed, and healed character. Disturbing and dark as her life might have seemed, her singing translated every layer of her struggles into an uncanny radiance.
For lighter French movies, Bienvenue Chez Les Chtis (Welcome to the Sticks), The Dinner Game, Potiche, La Cage Aux Folles, The Closet, and Les Comperes will be delightfully entertaining, funny – and loaded with French charm and culture.
The library has many other French films in our library to enjoy – browse the foreign film collection to find a new treasure!